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The Right Kind of Chaos

Music stirs the sediments of my mind.

It is sometimes the randomness I need interjected into my thoughts. On my drives to work, unless I am already thinking of how to solve a specific issue, or thinking of something creative, and I want my thoughts to have quiet space to percolate, I often turn on music. For one thing, I love to sing.

In the afternoons, on the way home from work, sometimes I want music to push out the echoes and the tangle of assorted mischief in my head (those leftover bits of all the things I worked on during the day). Sometimes I still want to sing. And sometimes, I just want quiet.

If my thoughts seem to be sorting themselves out, I usually prefer quiet. Recently I realized that if I don’t want quiet, it’s either to share joy, to learn the words to a new song I can sing (I do after all have a playlist for just that), or to stir up something. That last one brought a new insight with it.

I am often listening to music when I come up with my most creative writing ideas, or when I recall a memory that inspires me to write something about that as well. A new blog post, a book or story idea, or even just a small insight that I want to share, in as little as a tweet, or in something that I want to tell my wife or a particular friend.

Music stirs emotions as well as thoughts, and I think it’s too easy, especially in the grind of a workday, to have those pile up in a sedimentary layer that weighs everything else down. And if you leave it that way for too long, perhaps it really does crystallize and harden into something like rock.

Rocks are not easily stirred like water, dust, and dirt can be. Even sand moves. A lot. Rock just sits there and resists, perhaps until it breaks, and when it ruptures, sometimes the released pressure can be enormous and even destructive.

Whatever your creative pursuits might be, whatever gets your juices flowing in a beneficial way that is healthy for you and for everyone around you, embrace it! At least from time to time.

The mind is a rich field of ideas, inventions, concepts, artistry, and all manner of uplifting things. Don’t let yours calcify.

Even darkness has its place in the spectrum of human emotions, and it should be aired out, too, gently and with plenty of perspective. Read this again if you need some tools to explore it more carefully.

Find whatever moves you and stir your thoughts. It’s as healthy for you as it is for the soil in the Earth and the waters of the ocean. Seriously!

Some of the richest life on Earth surrounds coral reefs, and coral itself thrives where healthy currents run. Whether you move like a shark or sit like a coral, expose yourself to the currents of new ideas. Even if you have to stir them up yourself.

Testing Out of Life’s Remedial Class

We are at the age now where life does not always wait to drop the other shoe. I have a theory about that, but first, a little background.

When you’re young, every obstacle can seem like a challenge to be met. Things holding you back become tasks to finish, puzzles to overcome, or a longer race than you anticipated. But for some, everything seems possible as a young adult.

In the past three years, this has happened, and in fairly rapid sequence, all things considered:

  • I met an amazing woman and moved across the country (without a job yet) to court and marry her.
  • Once settled, I got a temporary job, and as soon as it moved to permanent, I asked my fiancée to quit her abusive job before it killed her (she did so, and her health gradually rebounded).
  • The pandemic swiftly encompassed most of the USA.
  • We moved up our wedding but postponed any honeymoon for safety reasons.
  • Stay-at-home orders were rolled out.
  • Wildfires and their smoke crippled most of our state, making even our backyard off-limits for most of the summer.
  • We launched a new writing project for 2021 and got our first couple of pieces published in a timely fashion. Then…
  • Literally four days before I would have been able to get a vaccine to reduce my family’s risk, the company I was with eliminated my position (and thus my eligibility for said vaccine).
  • Before I managed to find work again, we had a death in the family.
  • Some of my professional relationships happily evolved into personal friendships.
  • I learned that freelancing while looking for full-time work elsewhere is like working two jobs anyway, but only getting paid for one. (0/10 – do not recommend)
  • A local startup invited me to join their small, powerful team and focus my unique skill set where it could do the most good.
  • One of my thesis statements was proven to be correct.
  • A remedial class dropped into my life, only this time I “tested out” successfully. I was on the right track, but my wife helped me understand the final exam with which I was wrestling. Only then did I manage to pass a crucial test.

Quite the winding road! Yet when familiar patterns emerged, I saw some forks that I missed before. As our journey lengthens, does the pace accelerate, or do we simply see more, if we have the wisdom to pay full attention?

I have long said that life will give you the exact same lesson, in different forms, until you learn what you need to from it. But then, you get different lessons.

Is it a good sign to have so many chances to learn new skills and solve new problems, in quick succession? Or is it just exhausting? And how much of that depends on your attitude?

For the record, I think that how we respond to things matters more than what happens, on balance. And both can still be true: it is indeed exhausting AND probably still a sign that we’re ready to “level up” in life.

Well aware that the next thing could come up before we’ve sorted through the last events… I still have hope that we will learn what we need to from each struggle and reach a new, higher equilibrium. If that makes the next lesson easier to understand, so much the better.

Until then, remember to keep living, and not just waiting.

Branching Into a Third Class

I am always on a mission for greater self-awareness. Striving for this bears its own merit, in my opinion, because I think we can all be healthier, stronger, more productive, more efficient, more honest, and of course happier, with greater self-awareness. It’s not always pretty to look inside, especially when we’ve made mistakes, or if we have survived trauma. But facing such things honestly can take away some of their teeth, as naming any fear helps to defang it.

So self-awareness is a worthy goal in its own right. But that journey leads me to some most interesting places.

I pondered some things on a long, familiar drive today. I was alone in the car. I never turned on music. I just thought out loud. And I challenged one of my oldest biases: the bias against waste, which for me, hinges on three things more than any others:

  • wasted water — clean water running down the drain for no benefit;
  • wasted paper — crisp, processed, brand-new paper, thrown away for no benefit; and
  • wasted fuel — gasoline, with all of the pain and all of the destruction that goes into producing it, being burned so that someone can sit there, inside a very large truck, burning a great deal of fuel, while someone else stands outside the truck, leaning up against it, leisurely smoking a cigarette.

You may have surmised that I saw this last one today up close. It disgusted me, it infuriated me, and it made me angry and — because of anger — probably a little bit afraid. And as soon as I realized I was having this reaction, I started asking myself WHY.

I’ve learned to throw out a little bit of leftover food, rather than eat it, if I know that eating it will only make me feel sick (or worse), and if I know that putting it away will only mean that I’ll have to throw it away tomorrow or the day after, and then I’ll have a dish to wash, which will cost more water, and more energy, and more space in my head and in my life.

So I’ve learned to throw away food at times (“wasting” food), because it is sometimes the more efficient and the more effective option. Knowing the true cost of food, and especially of meat, how can I justify accepting that with a calmness I do not feel when I see people throw away perfectly good paper? Not into the recycler, but into the trash. Or when I see someone run water down the drain, and walk away from the tap while it’s running. Or sit in a car for one full hour, reading a book and eating, or even sleeping, while they just burn gas and pollute the air around me.

(Note that I’m not referring to someone who is sleeping for a bit between long shifts on a cold winter’s night while trying not to freeze; this frustration comes from seeing people sit in an air-conditioned vehicle when it’s barely hot out, while I’ve sat in my own car at the same time, with windows down and a sunshade in the windshield, enjoying the breeze while I eat my own lunch and read in the indirect light.)

These things infuriate me, but I still wanted to know why. This level of awareness has been long in coming. I’ve lived with these observations for years, but I haven’t always been able to figure out why they affect me so. And today, I set out to do just that.

Careless pollution infuriates me, but it should anyone. That’s a reasonable reaction. We all need to breathe the air!

And if I can accept wasting a little food sometimes, but not wasting water, why is that? I can pour water out on the ground, where plants will absorb it, and that’s fine. To me, that’s returning it to the natural water cycle, and some life still benefits from it. Even pouring it out in a parking lot seems better than just pouring it into the drain (back to the chemical treatment plant with you, clean stuff of life!), or throwing a plastic bottle (that could also be emptied and recycled) into a garbage can, water and all.

Exploring these curious variances, I wondered if my drive for efficiency has been my dominant force for so long, professionally and personally, that I’ve finally taken it too far.

Time to look back, then.

When I was much younger, I focused on mastery. Everything that I tried, I wanted to get very good at immediately. I found this was often possible, but if I couldn’t master it quickly, I tended to lose interest just as quickly. Eventually I learned that I will NOT always master everything I attempt to learn anyway. There are things I do not have the physical prowess for, or the mental acuity for, or the discipline to focus on, or the interest in spending the time to master. And that’s fine, too.

Knowing where my strengths lie, and focusing on getting a return for those, seems like a better investment anyway. I love to learn a smattering of all new things, but if I lose interest for any reason, I don’t always try to drive myself deeper now, unless there is another goal at stake (professional accomplishment, some personal attachment, or solving a mystery, for example). And so I move on.

For much of my professional life, efficiency has been my chief driver. It is one of my Unique Selling Propositions, as recruiters, salespeople, and consultants often say. Efficiency! Learn accuracy first, and follow with efficiency. If you do it right the first time, that’s still more efficient, so really, it’s the same driver for both.

And if efficiency goes too far, you start to worry so much about waste (in time, distance, or complexity) that you can lose sight of the bigger picture. Small moves do add up, and tiny steps can make a real difference in the grand scheme. However, if you keep sight of the bigger picture along the way, you will often find that you chose a better course in the end.

Which leads me to my third driver. My first phase was mastery. My second phase was efficiency. And perhaps my third phase is harmony.

Harmony requires calmness, and honesty, and lots of communication. But mostly, calmness and honesty. As many throughout history have paraphrased, think before you speak, and pause again if you need more time to do that thinking. Snap judgments and harsh words can destroy harmony in seconds, and they can break trust that takes ages to rebuild, if ever you can.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” – (attributed to everyone)

In seeking the source of my inner disharmony — the imbalance between my logical observations and my visceral responses — I remembered something curious. Even games from forty years ago can still teach me lessons today.

I learned about role-playing games when I was five years old. Too young to realize that this art mirrored life in many important ways, I focused on the rules and stretched my childish imagination. Characters could only have one “class” (or profession) for their whole lives. An oversimplified view of the world, for certain, but it welcomed new players with the concept of a deep study and lifelong specialization.

As a teenager, I discovered an evolution in these games. Someone’s character could now switch “classes” later in life, and they could keep using their skills and insights in the first class they had chosen, but only after surpassing their achievements in the new class. Again, real life tells some of the best students that they cannot serve two masters… or at least, not at the same time. Even geniuses seem to stay in one field until they reach an endpoint of study, or until some new curiosity leads them to step into a different lane, whatever changes that may require.

Mastery. Efficiency. Harmony.

Long ago I read a version of how to think on your words before you loose them into a room, or onto the world at large. This is how I remember it today:

  • Are you about to speak the truth? Not “your” truth, but objective truth?
  • Does this need to be spoken? If not, save your breath for something better. Maybe listen instead.
  • Will it help or will it hurt someone? Never hurt anyone on purpose, and try not to hurt anyone by accident, either.
  • Is it kind? There is usually a way to deliver difficult news or necessary criticism. Be humble, and patient, and always share bad news or corrective actions in private. Help someone learn, but let them save face, and you will find more grateful friends than bitter enemies by far.
  • If it needs to be spoken, it is truthful, and it will help someone, speak it kindly! If not (to any of those criteria), remain calm, and often quiet.

For the wise, study never ends as long as we draw breath in this world. You can only reach a new level of awareness by understanding where you are now. Better still if you recognize a problem or three around you as the stepping stones they are perhaps meant to be. There are lessons everywhere, if you pay attention.

Harmony may be an overarching goal that can lead me to the next phase of my life and my growth, and can still help the world an immense amount.

Today I begin this new journey.

Where is yours taking you?

Lifetime Learning

This is NOT a rant about Lifetime movies. Well, not really.

My wife is a big fan of them, though. We watch them together sometimes. If you are a fan of these movies and have one you’ve been itching to watch, please bookmark this post and read it only after you’ve seen the whole film to which you’re so looking forward. I’m not talking about specifics here, but some of the connections could be obvious.

***** GENERAL SPOILERS AHEAD *****

Let’s discuss some formatting items before I get to the thematic spoilers. I would never ruin a movie anyone wants to see, unless a single person told me they didn’t want to see it but needed to know how it turned out. So: warning posted.

We watch a fair number of these movies, so I’ve seen patterns emerge. While most of the films aim to empower women of any age, and many do a good job at this, I do take issue with a few problems therein, which all stem from the same cause.

***** SERIOUSLY, HERE WE GO *****

Most Lifetime movies follow one of two patterns: sadist or killer.

In the first scenario, everyone trusts the psychopathic sadist who shows up suddenly and tries to ruin everyone’s life due to some perceived slight or long-ago hurt. This person will gaslight everyone around them, and either no one suspects until near the end, or one person smells a rat early on, and the sadist isolates her from everyone in her life. Those people around her believe the worst about the person they’ve known for years, and they trust almost everything the antagonist says, usually without question.

In the second scenario, several people recognize the psychopathic killer but are murdered. Usually a few of those threaten to expose the killer without making backup plans, after which they typically turn their backs on said killer to call the police or send a crucial text. Whereupon each new victim dies quickly and foolishly. (Sometimes one last victim gets the word out to the protagonist, setting up the reveal at last.)

Both of these setups completely ignore the benefits of critical thinking.

No one locks their doors or looks behind them in these movies, so a killer is often lurking in the backseat, and people regularly sneak around in each other’s houses. And no one ever calls for backup before confronting the psychopath (unless perhaps at the very end).

If someone cuts brake lines, no one has the presence of mind to downshift, which allows engine braking to help them keep control of their car. I learned this at age 16, as I was learning to drive, and my brakes did fail organically once! The aging master cylinder came apart, and I lost brake power suddenly. But I knew what to do, and I stopped the car without hurting anyone or anything.

People constantly jump to conclusions and assume the worst about the heroine, or the best about the villain. If there is an obvious intruder knocking things over outside (or breaking in a window), people usually hear the sound and then mutter something about an animal and how harmless it is. Sometimes they even dismiss their worries and just go to sleep, with their backs to the bedroom door!

Also, villains frequently strangle their victims, but no one ever fights back. At all. People just stand there and die, without throwing themselves backward (if attacked from behind), striking at the inside elbows of the attacker (if grabbed from the front), pulling their seat lever and flinging it backward (if garrotted in the car), or kicking for the groin, instep, shin, knee, or stomach.

There are plenty of vulnerable spots to strike at if someone grabs you, but none of these people use even the basics of self-defense. When did we stop teaching that, and for goodness’ sake, why?

If these movies are teaching things to watch out for, how many does it take to make the message stick?

Roger Ebert once described a type of film that he did not enjoy, which he called an “if only” movie. In these, the entire plot line would have unraveled IF ONLY one character had said or done something differently. When the complete story arc hinges on a single unasked question, or a few crucial words that one leaves unspoken when they had the chance to say them, it can weaken the impact. The meaning of the story can dissolve.

I try to live my life on the lookout for those “if only” moments, and anytime I see them, I choose the safer road: the path where I tell that person I love them; or where I say what’s on my mind NOW, when I can, without waiting until “maybe later”. And for the sake of literally living another day, if I am suspicious of something I see or hear, I first tell my wife, and then I grab at least a makeshift weapon of some kind before investigating. And if you have security cameras, put a password on them and CHECK them before you venture outside. If you heard it, it’s probably SOMETHING!

A very different kind of movie taught me something else when I was much younger. In “The Princess Bride”, Chris Sarandon’s character is asked, “Could this be a trap?” and he smugly replies, “I always think everything could be a trap… which is why I’m still alive!”

You don’t have to be Prince Humperdinck to be careful, and you certainly don’t have to go around making enemies and trying to rule the world (or even your small portion of it). But if you’re constantly rude to people, get over it; everyone is going through something, just like you are. The details may be different, but we’re all human, and we all have struggles.

Good people get hurt, too, but a little caution goes a long way sometimes. And you’ve probably heard that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? Well, it’s a sound piece of advice, but there ARE killers and sociopathic, vengeful people out there, so sometimes there IS no cure if you’re careless. Be kind where you can, but be mindful, too. Don’t trust strangers with your life unnecessarily, don’t anger people on purpose, and please safeguard your personal information! Lock your phone, your computer, your tablet, your CAR, and your doors and windows!

Pay attention, and live another day. Life isn’t always easy, but it’s often worthwhile. If you’re enjoying any part of it, please stay here.

And when you need a lesson outside of your own experience, there’s always a movie on.

Briefly: Prosody

Prosody has two basic meanings: 1) the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry (you might think of how what we call prose easily shifts into true poetry with a little grace), and 2) the patterns of stress and intonation in a language. Pretty similar, right? I thought that was curious, but naturally, I HAD to know the etymology of that word at the same time as I learned the definition:

etymology of prosody
from “towards song” – how cool is that?

So that brightened my day, and I hope it can brighten yours, too, especially if you’re also a fan of words, poetry, and song. Or learning. Or reading. Or anything at all, really. Have a good one!

Back and Forth… and Back Again

It started off with just a simple errand.

I bought a couple of things at a new store last week, only to discover that I already had one of them when I got home.

Easy fix. We’ve all done it. So I kept my receipt, called the first chance I got, and drove to return it on my lunch break today.

The store was out of my way, but not far out. Just enough that I navigated to it, to be sure I would not get lost. Having been there once before, the way was mildly recognizable to me. I still used a navigation app; it wasn’t EASY yet, just a bit familiar!

Back in the car, it seemed wise to let my A.I. copilot guide me once more. But I quickly realized that I knew almost exactly where I was now. And suddenly, instead of carefully focusing on the street signs, I began to notice the scenery. And the people.

Here a car door opened into traffic. As I leaned toward the left side of the lane to make room, I glanced over at a young girl, barely of driving age, it seemed. The expression she wore suggested trepidation, concentration, or maybe just a difficult day. I felt bad for this child and hoped she was okay, perhaps only facing a new experience for which she would be stronger tomorrow.

There a woman marched out boldly in front of me. I saw her in time and braked, but she was focused on her destination, purposeful. Her determined expression a fierce contrast with the other girl, who might be a third her age. This woman knew the measure of all around her, whether she acknowledged it or not, and it showed.

Then the back of a head bobbing parallel on the sidewalk, no expression at all to read thoughts or attitudes. Just someone walking along on lunch, or on an errand of their own.

Buildings climbing on either side as I stopped at a light, blocking out the sun on a single street corner. Trees in lines at level heights, something far too cultured to be seen in nature. They decorate our cityscape, only hinting at what was here before. Or not, since I drive through a desert tempered by narrow lines of green, and well-kept streets. Mostly.

I have a friend across the country, who has lived a handful of decades about the city where I last spent but two; I on the outskirts, he in its heart. Gratefully I read a weekly newsletter he publishes, visualizing what he describes in such human detail: the faces, voices, rumbling cars and quiet cafés, books and trees and curiosities that abound downtown. It feels distant, a nostalgia for a place I left willingly, but still can feel a part of, if only for a few minutes each week.

Today I discovered it in my own backyard, or close enough. The cities are thousands of miles apart, say the maps, but I could have warped across space… or time, to compare the views. I still sleep on the outskirts, but I’m in the heart of it now. A closeness washes through me, to see the same vistas I knew then, here again.

Did I really move anywhere at all? Or did I just forget where I was for a while? By the pace of the familiar old city around me, I almost cannot tell.

Losing Big with Stock Investing

I read a thread on Twitter this morning about Apple’s reaching three TRILLION dollars in supposed value, and about one person’s crushing regret that they did not invest in Apple stock some time ago. Thinking about this gave me a few insights that are worth sharing.

Stock trading in a nutshell

A quick note for those who don’t know how single-stock trading works. When you buy one or more shares of stock, you own a piece of paper (more on this later), and you hope it will increase in supposed value. Then you can sell it at a later time, ideally for more than you paid, and you have a profit, or net gain.

That’s how you want things to go. If it drops in value, or if you need your cash back in a hurry, you can sell it at a loss and just take your money to do something else. This happens a LOT, and more than investment firms probably want you to dwell on.

Still, it’s possible to make plenty of money trading stocks, especially if you don’t care where it comes from. See, to strike it big with stock trading, you almost always take money from other investors; it rarely has any contact with the actual company in which you’re “investing”.

Q: Then how does it keep going?

That’s a great question!

The easy answer is cynical but probably accurate. I’ve heard more than once that the reason no one ever brings down this house of cards is that, if you’re smart enough to understand how it works and what’s wrong with the structure, a giant investment firm will usually try to snap you up and offer you an absurd amount of money to keep the deck stacked in THEIR favor, and help them make even more from it. They benefit, you benefit, and nothing changes.

The other side of that is that while some professors/lawyers (I’m looking at you two, Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren) do explain the very real effects of this in pretty clear terms, they don’t pay to advertise. Investment firms and stock-trading apps are everywhere, and they pay huge sums to keep the promises of big returns and the dream of passive income (“easy money”), right in your face, every day.

So a lot of people might never hear the dark side of this unless they lose out, and even then, if they don’t dig into the process, they might think it’s just bad luck, and not the natural result of a flawed process in which the house almost always wins. Traders and exchanges have been streamlining the system to ensure that for centuries now.

Preferred versus Common stock

It gets weirder, of course. Consider this as well, before you think you’ve missed out on something fantastic.

Preferred stock is a specialized investment into a company you believe in, when you want money and not control. Preferred stock is far more likely to repay your initial investment if the company liquidates for any reason (bankruptcy may or may not lead to liquidation of their assets), and the tax incentives to owning preferred stocks are ridiculously generous. If you have tons of money and want more, this is your safest bet.

Plus, if a company actually earns money by providing valuable goods or services to their clientele, they can pay real dividends to stockholders. But preferred stockholders always get paid first.

Common stock gives you voting rights over a company’s board of directors, and even the CEO. It will be a percentage based on what you own (usually one vote per share, with however many shares there are in the company’s holdings). While you can influence policy at times with your votes, that same board of directors can easily decide not to pay dividends to common stockholders at all. So, pros and cons for each.

Q: But what about trading?

You can still sell stock shares, and for more if the company is doing well in the public eye, or less if they’re visibly struggling. However, this is 100% subjective with common stock (preferred gives the company that issued the stock, the chance to buy those shares back from the market, so again, you’re more likely to get your money back at some point with preferred stock than with common stock).

As with art, the value of common stock is purely in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the buyer. While art may provide real emotional or mental benefits that make any price you pay worthwhile (and how I do love museums and showcases, too!), common stock just gives you a piece of paper that someone else, someday, might try to buy from you.

Convince others it’s worth less when you buy, and convince them it’s worth more when you sell. You’re making money by trading hard-earned cash for a piece of paper. It is literally something for nothing. And I won’t even BEGIN to explain “futures” in this post.

Q: How did we get here from there?

I started this with a few brief points to mention, but the background is there if you need it, too.

Here are your takeaways:

1) A stock purchase without understanding, or made from sentimentality, or from jumping on the bandwagon, is just throwing away your real money on ephemeral items of questionable worth. Might they turn out to be terrific investments one day, if you know when to sell? Maybe. Casinos supposedly pay out to players once in a while, too, but most people who visit them spend a lot on the experience and gain nothing more. (Experience is the only thing you can buy that always makes you richer, by the way. That part can be worthwhile anywhere.)

2) It is NOT a loss to look back on a skipped investment years ago that you think might have made you wealthy by today. And did you have any expenses back then that you’ve forgotten about now? If your money was tied up in paper slips that you wanted to sit on for twenty years, what else would you have missed out on along the way?

3) Finally, anyone who has studied the observer effect knows that things might have gone quite differently if they HAD taken the other road. You literally cannot expect that things would be the same everywhere, except for your new fortune today. That is not how causality works; not at the quantum level, and not at the macro level.

Q: Some of that is awfully specific. Got anything else?

Live in the moment and look at what you can do now. Not decades past. Haunting your regrets will make you miss out on the rest of your life. Literally. What can you do today and tomorrow to make your life better now, more interesting, more enjoyable?

What’s past is past, for everyone I’ve ever known.

What’s next, for you?

Agnostic No More?

It’s funny how connotation works, isn’t it?

You immediately think you know what that word means here, and you might be right. But as with so many things in life, it carries another meaning that also applies.

Most people see “agnostic” and think it must mean a belief, or a lack of belief, in a deity or a doctrine. I’m an etymologist, though. Not one with a degree, just a passion.

As an avid reader, I love to discover new words, but I am always on guard for alternate meanings.

As a writer, I constantly work to choose the best words — the most precise for what I am trying to describe, or the one that purposely has a dual meaning, to convey both at once, where appropriate. This is a perfect example of the latter use.

Years ago, I described myself as an agnostic in its modern sense: someone who distinctly does NOT know all the answers about a deity or the world(s) beyond our five most common senses and our three-dimensional environment. Most people know this meaning today.

However, as an explorer of science, medical discovery, applied psychology, and general self-development (I mean, really: can’t we all learn to do something better today?), that would seem to make me an agnostic in other ways, too.

The word agnostic comes into English from gnostic, which derives from the Greek for “known” and is related to the Latin “know”, according to Oxford Languages. Agnostic literally means “not knowing”, in its simplest form.

etymology of the word gnostic
I don’t know all the symbols to type this out myself yet. 😉

If you are certain you know the answers to something, people might say that you have faith, which Merriam-Webster defines as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”. However, I suspect that most people with a powerful faith believe what they believe either due to evidence they’ve witnessed (ideally) or from simple indoctrination, where beliefs are pounded into someone’s head through repetition (and sometimes punishment) without any evidence.

Most people who profess faith in a religious doctrine might point to holy texts, or even to a spiritual experience they’ve had which reinforced what they already suspected or believed or learned, and which left them with even stronger faith in their existing beliefs or hopes. This is evidence-based, even knowing that our minds are subject to bias and error and all manner of struggles, and that seems like a better reason for believing in anything.

This is why I support the scientific process all the time, too. Scientists are constantly discovering evidence that tests their hypotheses and forces them to evolve new theories, which often lead to more discoveries. This is how the human brain seems to be wired: constant feedback and growth is how we learn about our environment, and it is literally key to our survival in the world around us.

We’re not straying from the point, by the way. Quite the opposite.

Knowing what you don’t know gives you room to learn and even helps light the way. Anything that you study, with critical thinking and an open mind, can lead you to incredible discoveries: both the work others have done before you looked, and of course the ground that you break as well. And anyone can develop a new theory of how the world works, or how people think, or how to solve a previously-befuddling problem in astrophysics, psychology, medicine, theoretical mathematics, or almost anything else.

Artists constantly reinterpret and even reinvent the world around them, and such a new vision can enlighten, dishearten, inspire, anger, or simply teach. Artistic expression is crucial to our growth as a species, because while scientific curiosity can open many doors to knowledge, artistic curiosity can open doors to mysteries. And mystery itself can be frightening or exciting, depending on your perspective, which of course can change and grow anytime.

Also, doesn’t every mystery invite exploration? How better to keep us seeking a deeper understanding, and more knowledge — and even theory — of the world (or worlds) around us? Maybe we’re wired for curiosity as well. Maybe it’s what we need the most in this life.

What do you think you know the best? What are you working to discover about yourself, your world, or the life around you? Please comment below and share your thoughts!

Remember to Cry

Amid the pandemic, some of us may not have as many close, personal interactions with other people as we did in years past. For extroverts, it may be easy to empathize with people when you can look into their eyes and see their emotions so plainly.

I wouldn’t know about that part; I’m an ambivert, and I’ve always related best to introverts.

A few days ago, I received a beautiful card from a dear friend. Their words moved me to tears, and I could feel in those words the ache of being so far apart from so many that we love, and for so long now. It’s easy for me to read emotions on paper, and my friend’s pain and hope and love and fear all came through clearly.

But the bad news plays non-stop these days, and it’s all too easy to grow numb. To survive, sometimes we must harden our hearts just enough that we don’t bleed our emotions all over everything we touch. It seems that most people only have so much to give before we are exhausted. Without some good things happening around us, the one-sided cycle can build up enough momentum to crush the fragile hearts of all but the strongest among us.

Of course there is still beauty to be found — or made — in these sometimes endless days. Even with a pandemic raging across the burning planet of struggling people, there is still some good news. But you must dig for it, or for the peace to create some of it yourself. And how do you do that when your heart is growing numb?

Luckily, the answer to that is easier to find than it may seem: CRY. Yes, I can explain.

Cry. Not with helpless rage. Not in rolling fear. Help yourself to cry again. Find a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, a portrait of someone you love (and perhaps lost), a poem, or some prose. Anything that can soften the frozen barrier around your heart can save you from apathy and the terrifying disconnect that can creep over even the greatest empathizers when the world becomes too much.

For me, I keep close a small collection of poems and cards, some long messages with friends, and a short, specific playlist of songs. Any one of these might help if I’m just starting to slip, but sometimes I have to run a gauntlet through them to crack the shell I didn’t realize had grown so thick.

I consider myself pretty self-aware, and I can usually tell when I’m getting overwhelmed. Detecting when I’m growing disconnected is harder, but I can pick up the signs for that as well. Once I recognize the disconnect, I have to carve out at least a few minutes to immerse myself in these memories and works of art. Not just the most painful memories I have, but those specific mementos I keep to evoke a nostalgia of someone I love who is too far away, or a poem or song by an artist I love that expresses their pain. Really swimming in that, I can usually let myself get carried completely away into the art or the memory. With some of these experiences in succession, eventually I start to cry again.

Have you heard the advice that the best way to forget your own problems is to get involved in someone else’s? The reason that works is that it invokes your empathy. It opens your heart to someone else’s struggle. When their trouble is not the same kind as yours (or at least not currently), it can stir a rush of selfless love that refreshes those cold, drained channels inside of you. And that compassion can give you the courage to face their pain with calm dignity and the strength to lend your aid in whatever way you are able.

When you find a way to draw out your own empathy, whether the subject of your unconditional love is at hand or not, you gain a perspective that is just outside of your own struggles. Even that small distance can make yours seem more manageable, and that can mean the difference between wandering listlessly through your day, cold and detached, or engaging fully with everything you do, bringing even a little bit of hope and light to all you touch (distantly or not).

That difference is as tangible as life and death, or daylight and the darkest night. And it can save you from yourself when you question how you can continue to work effectively, connect with the people in your life, or maybe even get out of bed on the most difficult days.

For most of us, the highs can outweigh the lows, whether you love to mix with people, or whether your plants and your pets are the only ones you want to see most days.

Open your heart as much and as often as you can, and I promise you, life will be more rewarding because of it. More difficult? Certainly. But far more worthwhile.

Just remember to cry, and you will know you are truly alive.